Authors: Alice Sabo
“Subsequent years of the virus were named by the animals that died. Year One was rats. Their populations had swollen the previous year due to an increase in food and lack of exterminators. When they died off in mass numbers, many people were thankful. We didn’t yet know that they were the harbingers of a new outbreak.”
History of a Changed World,
Angus T. Moss
Wisp was ready to leave the minute Lily woke. He'd packed some food and medical supplies. William would need help. He wondered what the children could know that would have soldiers torturing a boy for it. And how to speak of it to the girl? She would need to know what they would find at the end of their quest. He hoped William would last that long. This morning the link to him felt weak, faded, yet jagged with pain.
Lily's waking was like a small explosion in his head. She was bubbling over with eagerness and questions. He let her choose a breakfast of train food. She ate while he cataloged his possessions. There was always a possibility that he couldn't come back to this place. And with mercenaries in the neighborhood, perhaps it was time to move on. He collected a few items that were hard to find: a good knife, his favorite canteen and some clothes that were fairly new.
“You did a good job with your braid,” Lily said.
“Thank you.” Wisp knotted a bandanna around his neck. Today might have fighting in it. Loose hair was a liability.
“Can you do mine, too?”
He sat her on a stool to comb the tangles out of her long, brown hair. When he touched her, he saw Iris for a moment and another woman, older, with the same red-brown color of hair, perhaps her mother. Both memories were pushed down hard as soon as they rose. Avoidance was sometimes survival. “Today will be difficult,” he warned.
“Because we have to walk far away?”
“Because we go to a dangerous place.” He tied off her braid with a bit of string.
Lily turned and gave him a serious look. “Will the men with guns be there?”
“Yes.” He collected his pack. “Come.”
She followed him up through the darkness and out to the cluttered yard. The morning was cool and moist from the night's storm. Tendrils of fog rose from damp corners like smoke. Wisp led her to the road on the back side of the factory. A narrow strip of asphalt, crowded with saplings and crumbling from seasons without repair, followed along the bank of a broad river. Trees leaned over the road shading them from the first rays of morning sun.
“Oh, what's that?” Lily ran to edge of the road where it came near the river.
“We need to hurry,” he said, not pausing in his stride. She caught up with him and skipped a few steps ahead. He spread out his senses. There was no one about. The child was safe to stray.
“Will we find William today?”
“Yes.” He didn't say that the boy might not see tomorrow if they didn't. The girl didn't need to know that pain yet.
“By lunch time?”
He thought about the right words to use to make her understand without frightening her too much. “Lily, I need to talk to you about the men with guns.”
A tremor of anxiety shook her. “Okay.” Her voice was small and shy.
“I will find a safe place for you to wait. Then I will go and look at where the men with guns are. Then I will come back to the safe place and tell you what we will do next. So I need you to stay where I tell you to stay. Can you do that?”
Her hand stole into his, small and frightened. He let her set the pace. Her short legs were muscular. She had fled before. What she lost in stride, she made up for in speed.
* * *
The sun rose above the trees heating even the shade to a level of discomfort. Wisp called a stop, and they ate the train food he'd packed for lunch.
“Is it much further?”
He opened himself to William, feeling his pain and confusion. The boy was close. Reaching out, he felt the men guarding the boy. Four, maybe more, if some were sleeping. He didn't like the feel of the men.
“Are you talking to William?” Lily asked.
“But you know where he is?”
Wisp pointed in the direction they were headed. “I can feel him there. Lily, he is hurt.”
Her lip trembled before she bit it. “Did they shoot him?”
“I don't think so.”
“Shooting is bad. If they didn’t shoot him, he’ll be okay.”
Wisp considered her oblivious optimism. She hadn’t yet experienced all the ways a body could be damaged. Sometimes the worse injuries were internal. But she didn’t need to know those things yet. “Maybe,” he said, all the warning he could give.
Lily hopped up. “We better go.”
* * *
When he decided they were close enough, Wisp led Lily down to the river. They walked the damp verge until he found an undercut high above the water. The roots of a lumpy old sycamore splayed across the bank like ancient steps. The lowest were exposed as the river washed more soil away every flood season. At the top of the bank, a root as thick as his waist ran horizontal creating a small cave beneath it. It was dry and sandy and large enough for Lily to hide in. “Here is the safe place for you to stay.”
Lily grabbed his hand. “What if you don't come back?” At her touch, her panic hit him hard, racing up his arm like an electric shock. She'd been covering it very well for someone so young.
“This time is just to look.” He knelt down to be closer to her. “I will come back and tell you what will happen next.”
She nodded, eyes wide, lips tight, not quite able to trust his word. Her small fingers squeezed his hand nervously before letting go.
“I will be back before you can count to one thousand.” He tossed his pack into the undercut.
“One thousand is a lot! I don't know one thousand!” Her fear of abandonment was shoved aside by a sudden spike of resentment.
“What do you know?” he asked, dismayed at her lack. The children born since the virus weren’t being educated. It was a failing that he found inexcusable.
“A hundred. I know how to count to a hundred.” She glared at him, hands on slim hips.
Wisp smoothed a place in the damp earth. He took a stick and wrote the numbers one through ten. “One thousand is ten hundreds. So count to one hundred ten times. Each time you get to one hundred, cross out one number.” He handed her the stick.
“Okay.” She frowned at the numbers in the sand. He worried that she couldn’t read either. “That’s not really a two. You didn’t do it right.” She said poking the stick into the dirt.
He glanced at what he’d scratched out. They looked like normal numbers. “Cross off one symbol each time you count to one hundred.”
She seemed more assured when she gave him a wide-eyed nod. He double-checked the area for strangers. No one was closer than the men who had taken her brother. “Start counting.”
Her voice was swallowed up by the sound of the river in the time he'd taken three steps.
* * *
Wisp slipped through the undergrowth stealthily. Here at the edge of the water, thickets of bramble and saplings made the woods quite dense. He kept his senses open, making sure that the only human minds in the area were William and his captors. And yet, at the very edge of his awareness, he could feel another person. Someone from the settlement downriver perhaps. The person was far enough away not to be an immediate threat, and felt clean, a mind bright with healthy curiosity. Maybe just a fisherman looking for a good spot. There was a greasy darkness to the men holding William. A heavy shadow of wrongness that Wisp had felt once before in mercenaries that had tracked him for the reward. He doubted that the bright mind was working with the darker ones. Although if it wandered closer, Wisp might need to intercept or divert it.
The mercenaries were holed-up in a derelict factory. There were dozens of similar sites along the river. When he’d first come to the area, Wisp had looked at this one, but it had no basement. It was older than the one he’d finally chosen. The forest was taking it over. Trees and weeds and vines had thrust up through floors and scrambled out windows. From the look of it, a storm could bring down the remaining walls any time now. Wisp wondered if they were foolish or had access to weather forecasting. He would never have made a camp in there.
Breathing in the rhythm of the woods, Wisp moved through the undergrowth like one who belonged. Hard to see in the dappled light, and protected by a broadcast suggestion that he was just another shrub swaying in the wind, he advanced confidently. The trees petered out into saplings and weeds working hard to reclaim the parking lot. He settled in a patch of long grass and concentrated on pinpointing every mind in his surroundings.
There were two men out in the woods. Possibly walking patrol, but they were arguing, their attention on each other, not their environs. Sloppy. One was angry, distracted, the other smug. Neither was doing his job.
In the building, he could sense three men with the boy. Listening, tasting, sensing them, he realized they were not guarding. They were bored and frustrated, but there was no remorse for the damaged inflicted on William. They wanted better food, beer, to be more comfortable, for the job to be over. Like the men in the woods, they were careless, not expecting any inconvenience beyond the recalcitrance of the boy.
When he had located every mind in the vicinity, and knew he was out of any sightlines, Wisp crossed the parking lot to peer inside the building. Streamers of sunlight filtered in through the broken brickwork and crisscrossed the dark interior. A damp smell of leaf mold and woodrot pervaded the space. He checked first for the weapons, body armor and whatever supplies they had. The camp, aside from being badly placed, was badly organized. Equipment, clothing and discarded food lay scattered across the leaf-strewn floor. Although the equipment was new and well designed, the soldiers were slovenly. Their uniforms were wrinkled, stained with mud and sweat. The three men inside were busy with their own pursuits, one eating, one dozing and the third trying to start a fire in a small ring he’d made of broken bricks.
With Lily’s countdown running in the back of his mind, Wisp memorized the placement of supplies, weapons and exits, then he looked into the shadows beyond the men. William was tied to one of the remaining support columns. He hung slack in his restraints. There was blood on the floor. And when he saw it, he was aware of the smell. The boy was unconscious, but Wisp was close enough to feel the pulse of life within him. He was alive, but not for much longer. William couldn’t take much more punishment.
The two walking patrol were returning. Wisp could hear their voices, raised and angry. Satisfied that he had collected all the information he needed, Wisp returned to Lily.
“As a way to stop the looting, the government began distributing food in the mistaken belief that hunger fueled the unrest. It wasn’t hunger. When society breaks down, so too do the social niceties such as obeying rules. The authorities were too busy trying to bury the dead and relocate the living, they didn’t have time to chase criminals.”
History of a Changed World
, Angus T. Moss
The sun was high overhead making Nick sweat as he trudged up the river road. It hadn't taken him very long to get a lead. The minute he had stepped off the train in White Bluffs, he'd been mobbed by people demanding news of Clarkeston. They could see the smoke. A call for assistance had gone out over the ether. Clarkeston had firefighting equipment, they just needed more hands. Nick had been leaning toward joining the crew of volunteers when the whispers reached him. Most of the settlement believed that mercenaries had started the fire. Nick had to believe that there couldn’t be two groups of mercenaries in the area right now. He followed the whispers.
There was no consensus, only rumors of troop movements, wildly inconsistent. Or maybe it was only one heavily armed man. Or a fleet of black trucks packed with men armed to the teeth. Everyone he spoke to had seen at least one man in black military gear and more than one sleek black vehicle. But they weren't regular soldiers. No one had seen the country's soldiers since the riots during the first days of the virus. Back when there were cops and national guard and a formal army. Regular soldiers would be welcome. Mercenaries were not. They made people nervous. Nick heard the same questions repeated whenever the topic came around to the armed men: who were they? What did they want? They were strangers. They must be responsible for the catastrophe in Clarkeston.
The only thing they all agreed on was that the men went north along the river road. Nick had walked that way on his last visit to High Bluffs. Up that way were old factories, one after the other in ranks along the water's edge. It was all the clue Nick needed to hear. The description of automatic weapons and body armor matched the kind of gear he'd seen on the dead man in the murdered girl's house. Too much of a coincidence for them not to be the same group. He drifted away from the gossiping crowds that had gathered by the train station. In the confusion of the volunteer fire fighters organizing a convoy, no one noticed him go. He took a roundabout route to the edge of town watching for anyone following. Once he was sure that no one was dogging him, he headed north up the river road.
It was a long walk to the first factory, but he made good time. The sky stayed clear, not a cloud in sight. There would be no storms today, when Clarkeston could use a pounding downpour to help with the fires. The hot dry days of summer were coming in. Another few weeks and a fire like that could rage unstoppable across the bone-dry countryside. He set a quick pace, keeping to the shaded side of the road.
Nick was sweaty and hungry by the time the first rusting water tower came into sight. He moved off the road and into the cover of the woods. A quick look told him this one was unoccupied. By the twisted roots of a toppled tree, he hunkered down for a brief rest. During a quick meal, he thought about the situation. He could be walking into an armed compound, alone. If the mercenaries had the children, it was going to be an extremely difficult extraction. But he had no doubt that the children needed to be rescued. Their murdered sister was all the proof he required to know the mercenaries had ill intent. He only hoped that he’d get there in time. Without a motive for the murder, he had no clue as to why the children were targets.
After stowing his trash and taking a long slug of water, he resumed his trek. What he wanted most of all, at this point, was information. Being on his own meant he had to be smart. He’d take a good look at the compound, locate the children and hope for a plan. Back on the road, he marched past a line of rusted train cars before approaching the next factory. Fallen trees had taken down the fencing, but the driveway was still obvious. Nick slipped back into the trees.
Placing each foot carefully into the forest litter, testing every step for solidity and sound, Nick moved toward the factory. The birds were noisy this deep into the trees. Swallows swooped by on their way to the river. The forest felt alive with sound. Enough, he hoped, to cover his approach.
The sky glinting through the canopy still held light, but the floor of the forest was filling with shadows as he crept up on the derelict building. Someone was there. He could smell food cooking. Still at a safe distance, he stashed his pack under a bramble patch and loosened his weapons. Then he slowly worked his way forward until he heard voices. Crouching in the weeds, at the edge of a pot-holed parking lot, he waited, listening and watching.
Very few minutes passed before an armed man came around the side of the dilapidated building. Over his shoulder, hanging loose on its strap, was an automatic weapon. Nick concentrated on breathing as quietly as possible, but his heart speeded up. The man was wearing black body armor like the dead man at the murder scene. He’d found his quarry. The fact that he was out-gunned and out-numbered was frustrating. He’d need to get closer to see if they had the children. Bright light speared out of cracks and crannies from within the building. Luckily, with all the doors and windows missing, that would make it much easier to see inside.
As he was assessing the cover closer in, his eyes were drawn to a flicker in the undergrowth to the left of the man. A heartbeat later, inexplicably, the guy was gone. He blinked hard, staring at the sun-bleached grasses in the long shadows of twilight. A soft rustle in the weeds, and he saw a pair of boots dragged away. A shiver pricked its way down Nick's spine. Someone was hunting the hunters. That was an unforeseen complication.
Another mercenary stepped through a collapsed doorway with a mug in his hand. He looked both ways. “Allen?”
Nick held his breath.
There was a soft groan from the weeds.
“Allen?” The man dropped the mug and drew a sidearm. The movement was fluid, practiced. Nick had no doubt this was a professional unit. From the body armor to the weapons, it was obvious they had the kind of resources that didn't seem to exist anymore. He looked closer at the gun. It was a small, powerful looking thing that Nick coveted immediately.
“Allen, are you okay?”
There was no answer. The mercenary moved cautiously toward the weeds. Dried stalks and new growth combined to make a seemingly impenetrable mat. He looked behind, to the sides, one step closer. Nick felt sweat running down his neck. He hesitated to warn him. If these were the men that he was looking for, they had gunned down a young woman for no apparent reason. Or was there a war he was unaware of? Was this a retaliation from the other side? Should he remain silent and let some other, unknown party take action? Nick saw the flicker again and the man went down. Not quite as soundless. A grunt and a muffled thud of impact. The hair stood up on Nick's arms. His hesitation may have cost a life, and he had no way to judge the consequence. He wasn’t even sure if they were dead or unconscious.
Someone ran in a crouch from the weeds to the factory wall. Nick got his first look at the assailant. He was thin, but muscular, long white braid down his back, bright against tanned skin. Only a faded green tee shirt and jeans. Not a soldier. Not a mercenary. Then he turned and looked right at Nick, putting a finger to his lips for silence. Nick locked eyes on him. The man pointed to the wall and raised three fingers.
Nick was stunned. How had he seen him? How did he know that Nick might be an ally? Before he could think of any answers, the man ghosted into the building. Nick ran over and took his place at the wall. Two against three were better odds, although he still wasn’t sure what the sides stood for. At the very least, he’d be able to see if the children were here. If not, he’d get back under cover in the woods double-time.
The mercenaries had made a haphazard camp in the far corner of the building. Lamps flooded the area with light. Nick reassessed his assumptions about the soldiers. The setup didn’t look as organized as it could be. Three men sat at ease, one reading, one eating and the third poking at a cook fire. To one side a teenage boy was tied to a pillar. He'd been badly beaten. Nick felt sick looking at the kid. He concentrated hard until he saw the boy's chest rise. At least he was still alive. Who were these bastards that they would torture a boy? That eliminated any remorse he felt about the bodies in the weeds outside. But then another element of the scene hit him. One of the floodlights was trained on the boy, showing him clearly in the dark interior of the building. In Nick’s experience, that meant he was bait. Since he didn’t see a little girl, Nick assumed that she was the one they were hoping to draw in with bloody and battered William as the lure. Not a solid proposition for attracting a twelve year old girl.
That lead him to believe that these men probably didn’t know that Iris was dead. It made more sense that the hostage was to get the older girl’s cooperation. When Nick found her body back in the house in Clarkeston, the dead mercenary was still there. He must have been alone when he attacked her. Nick didn’t think these men would be so sloppy as to leave behind one of their own to be identified. Which would explain why no one had searched the house for the notebooks.
He looked through the shadows to find the white-haired guy, but couldn’t locate him. The mercenaries were still oblivious of the intruder. Nick was impressed with the guy’s skills, moving through broken glass and tumbled bricks without a sound. There were a million places to hide in the slumped walls and piles of debris inside the building. Nick would never have set up in a place like this. These guys were over confident. But Nick didn’t think three to one were good enough odds that he would have infiltrated on his own. He wondered what the white-haired guy’s plan was, and if he was working alone. The next move surprised him.
The white-haired guy sauntered into camp. Apparently he’d been too quiet, so he scuffed a toe across a loose pile of stone. That caught their attention. There was an explosion of reaction, of anger and swearing. The mercenaries were on their feet, grabbing for weapons in a hot minute. The intruder was too fast to watch, white braid flying, tanned arms a blur. The first man went down with a roundhouse kick to the jaw. The second man shot at him as soon as his colleague hit the dirt. The intruder came in close with a rapid sequence of martial arts moves that made Nick think of the old Chinese movies. The gun flew across the factory, kicked out of his hand, and the second man went down. The guy at the cook fire charged with a burning branch. By the time Nick climbed through the broken window, that guy was down, too. He grinned. Who needed a plan when you had mad skills like that?
“Come. The boy is injured.” The white-haired man stood examining the boy, clearly illuminated by the floodlight. Nick tripped over a brick, his question frozen in his throat. Pale eyes, super strength, and in the light he saw the numbers tattooed down his neck. The guy was a biobot. What did he want the child for? Nick raised his gun.
“You did it!” A child's voice, high pitched and gleeful cut into Nick's deliberation. Out of the rubble a young girl ran over and hugged the biobot. “Oh, Wisp, you were right. The bad men hurt him. Can you fix him?”
Nick was flummoxed. These two children must be William and Lily. There had not been any mention of a biobot. He was sure Angus would have definitely told him about something like that. “Are you Lily?”
She slid a step behind the biobot, taking his hand. “Who are you?”
The biobot spoke to her softly. “He will not hurt you Lily. He is a good man. He will help us with William.”
Nick stared. How did he know?